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I am absolutely appalled at United Airlines’ decision to start charging extra to passengers that don’t fit in their seats. If we are all purchasing passage from one location to another then it is the airline’s responsibility to provide seats of varying sizes for customers of varying sizes. Not doing that is discriminatory enough, but actually charging larger passengers more is horrendous.

Interestingly, the policy itself, when not looked at next to larger issues (like discrimination) and when one accepts the premise that something like this is okay, is internally, rather reasonable. It states that the airline will do whatever it can to make sure that passengers are accommodated before being asked to buy an upgrade or another seat. For instance, they will be relocated, if possible, to two seats next to each other and not charged extra. Moreover, if two seats are purchased, then baggage can be distributed amongst the two seats rather than cost more money.

Well, yee-frickin’-haw!

The Premises

That doesn’t stop it from being discrimination, and here’s why. I will set out two premises to this argument, the first based on something in the policy and the second based on society’s erroneous perceptions of weight.

First, the issue here is not about something like, “your weight means you take more fuel and you need to pay for that.” Why? Because if possible, large passengers will be given two seats without being charged. Thus, there weight is fine. So what’s the issue?

The issue is when you become an impediment to someone else’s flying experience. The open line of the new policy states, “For the comfort and well-being of all customers aboard United flights.” (my emphasis). This refers to fat people being in others’ seat space by not being able to put the armrest down (a requirement United has instituted). Thus, the criteria for determining if you should pay for a second ticket or be moved to another seat with an open one next to it is that size is a problem for other passengers.

Now the second premise. Let’s assume - though I contest that it’s not true, and at the very least not always - that weight is something controllable by each fat person (by every person, actually). That is, it’s fat people’s fault that they’re fat and because they can do something about all the space they’re taking up, they should - and if they don’t, they should pay more. Now, I don’t think this is true but at the very least, it’s untrue in the way our society perceives it to be so. Nevertheless, I’m willing to accept it as a premise of this argument for the sake of thinking like the majority of people considering this policy.

The Argument

So, if you can control fat and the problem is that you are impeding other passengers’ riding experience then this is discrimination because of all the other people that can control issues that impede other passengers’ travel comfort. For instance, what about smokers?

Smokers choose to smoke. People who stink like smoke and whose clothes reek give me (and others) headaches and make me feel nauseous throughout the flight and even some time after. Shouldn’t they be required to sit in a special area that’s wrapped in plastic and prevents their smell from getting out (or people with terrible B.O. who could elect to shower)?

And what about people who are sick and coughing and sneezing throughout the flight? Arguably, sick people can’t control their sickness, but should they be forced to buy cough drops or nasal spray? At the very least, I don’t want to sit next to sick people and touch the armrests that they’re touching (better fat flowing over the armrest than snot on it, I say!). I don’t want them hacking on me and making me sick - and unable to sleep with all the noise they’re making (at least you can get comfortable against fat people). Sick people are a much larger impediment to flight comfort than fat people.

Smokers and sick people impede my ability to travel comfortably. Why aren’t they being asked to move to more open areas or buy extra seats away from other people?

Because we accept discriminating against fat people - that’s why. Of course, our society loves discriminating against smokers, too, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see a law one day against them even getting on planes smelling like smoke but at this stage, the rules just hate fat people.

And if weight is something that, generally speaking, cannot be controlled then this discrimination is even more outright and blatant.

How should we react to this new policy? How do you feel about it? Have you ever been discriminated against at the airport. Read the policy and discuss it.

As an historian, Jay understands the degree to which our aesthetic judgments are shaped by our cultural surroundings, and he has studied and written about the importance of rights, respect and acceptance for all people. Jay is a member of the Association for Size Diversity and Health.


Previous Comments

  • Essentially, I disagree with the premises of the argument above more than the content assuming the premises are correct.

    1) I disagree that passengers are buying “passage.”  Passengers are getting passage, but airlines are selling space on an airplane.

    Although passengers are receiving “passage”, what they are really purchasing is space on the airplane.  Airlines have a limited amount of space on every plane.  They hope to maximize the revenue on every flight on a seat basis.  They do this by first determining how valuable the flight is in the context of other flights (i.e. business vs. leisure travel), and then by evaluating the value of each seat on that flight (the closer it gets to the deadline, the more they can reasonably extract from customers).  Airlines don’t see passengers, they see seats.  This is why they oversell flights - they have complicated algorithms that tell them, for each segment, what percentage of passengers typically shows up for a purchased flight.  Then, they oversell based on this percentage, and voila!  They made X percent more than the value of the seats!  Of course, they might screw over a passenger here or there if everyone actually shows up, but that’s OK.  The flight was full; they got every dollar out of the flight that they could have.
    Piggybacking on this point, just think about families.  If it came down to passage, or passenger’s rights, it would make no sense that children have to pay for flights, or that parents of children taking a flight have to pay more.  This essentially doubles for a family with two children (consider the Octomom).  Fortunately, you can fly with a child for free - if they are an infant in arms.  Oh, how nice that the airlines should recognize that parents with newborns are strapped for cash!  Or perhaps it’s because they don’t take up a seat.  Perhaps airlines should be charging for the infant as well.

    For airlines, it isn’t about the gall of the person who is so fat that they take up two seats.  It is about the revenue that is lost of they allow that person to take up two seats, and only charge them for one.  If anything, the point made in the blog regarding attempting to move the passenger to two seats without charging them should be seen as a concession on the part of the airline, rather than an obligitory measure that allows one to take offense when the alternative, paying for two seats, must be done.

    2) The assumption that a person taking up part of your seat is the same as them smelling unacceptably or being unwell is not appropriate.

    When someone is large enough that they are taking up part of the seat(s) surrounding them, this constitutes a violation of the space and privacy of those surrounding folks.  As stated in my argument above, flights do not sell passage, they sell seats.  As a passenger on a plane, it is not just my right, but what I paid for, that I have full access to the seat I have been provided.  While the argument above empathizes with the fat passenger, it neglects the right of the passenger whose space is invaded to the seat that they purchased.

    Ultimately, the issue of charging multiple seats to a single passenger is a space issue, not a weight issue.  This practice is no more discriminatory than charging someone for food on a per pound basis (for the food, not the person), or charging someone more for larger clothes (sorry Shaq and George Muresan), or a larger bathtub (sorry President Taft).  If anything, this practice is a lesson in Economics 101 - Supply and Demand, a fact the airlines, with their policy of trying to accomodate larger passengers, are trying to deal with humanely and appropriately.  The only other alternative to this practice would be to create larger seats and charge more for them on an adjusted basis by floor space.

  • Jay Solomon's avatar

    Kush - thank you for your thoughtful points and respectful disagreement with my premises. Because, as you said, you didn’t disagree with the argument, only with the premises being a valid way to conduct the argument, I will defend my premises rather than my later arguments.

    The first premise concerned what a passenger is buying. I had a little trouble finding United’s full policies, but I did find Delta’s, another of America’s major air carriers, and I thought that it would suffice as the wording from airline to airline is relatively similar. (I would love to explore United’s if anyone can post a link).

    In any case, it says in the Delta Terms and Conditions, as the first point in the entire section that defines what a ticket is:

    “No person shall be entitled to transportation except upon presentation of a valid ticket. Such ticket shall entitle the passenger to transportation only between points of origin and destination and via the routing designated thereon.”

    The entire section on what a ticket is says nothing about seats. Based on the above, I consider the premise of what’s being purchased - passage, or “transportation between points,” if you prefer - entirely valid.

    Interestingly, one of the only places in the entire set of Terms and Conditions that mentions seats is in the “Passenger’s Conduct or Condition” which is the section that proves that a person being in part of a second seat is considered equally as problematic, and according to these policies, cause to throw you off (at the sole discretion of the airline, of course) the plane, as being smelly or sick.

    Here are three reasons, in this order, that Delta reserves the right to kick you off the plane:

    5) When the passenger has a contagious disease that may be transmissible to other passengers during the normal course of the flight;
    6) When the passenger has a malodorous condition; (Jay’s note: malodorous means bad smelling)
    7) When the passenger is unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened;

    Though there are other valid points throughout your comment and I appreciate and respect them all, I must insist that, at least according to Delta, my premises are entirely valid. I’m confident that these Terms and conditions are comparable to United’s, and a cursory inspection of that airline’s Terms and Conditions would likely show this to be true.

  • Thanks for providing that excerpt.  That probably saved 7-8 more posts of back-and-forth arguing about what one is actually purchasing with an airline ticket, whether airline food is “real” and what the meaning of life is.  Now I can simply gracefully accept your premise and attack the conclusion (hopefully still respectfully and with grace).

    To that end, I would ask these questions:

    1)  Which about the airline policy is discriminatory; that the person is asked to give up their seat on the original flight, or that they are being asked to pay for a second seat going forward?

    2)  What would you do in a situation where a passenger took up two seats?

    I am asking these questions specifically of the poster, but so as not to abuse their time and energy I’ll provide answers (however flawed) as a baseline.

    1) I would argue that neither policy is discriminatory.  I will discuss each of the two points separately.  First, if someone takes up two seats on an airplane, and one of the two people must get off of the airplane in order for one of them to fit comfortably, then arises the issue of responsibility.  Above, Jay discussed the issue of responsibility in light of one’s ability to “control” their weight.  It seems that the issue is less a person’s ability to “control” their weight, as it is their responsibility to take their size (not weight) into account when purchasing airline tickets.  On the other hand, if we assume that the second individual fits in their seat without issue, they could have no way to take into account the fact that the person sitting next to them would encroach their area.

    Now let’s assume that the larger individual was expected to leave the aircraft if they didn’t sit in their seat.  The airline’s only alternative is to place them on a later flight.  But given airlines’ operational focus on maximizing passengers on planes, it is entirely possible that no flight will exist in the near future for that passenger to take - especially with a two-seat requirement.

    Which brings me to my second question.

    2) In a situation where passengers are too large for a single seat, the question seems to be whether it is the passenger’s responsibility to purchase two seats, or the airlines’ responsibility to accomodate them if they don’t sit in one seat.  Jay’s efforts above were aimed at proving the former; let’s assume this is true and explore the latter scenario.

    In the latter scenario, I can conceive of two alternatives.  One, the passenger has the option of paying the same fare as other passengers, and selecting an “I need a second seat” option which would give them access to an adjacent seat.

    The second alternative would be that part of the plane consisted of “larger” seats, and that these seats would be designated for folks that actually needed them for their comfort and the comfort of those around them.

    Let’s say the first scenario is the case.  In this scenario, airlines would eventually be required to price tickets at a much higher rate for everyone in an effort to drive the same revenue that is currently earned from passengers.  This would require an additional input to passenger modeling, because they would then be required to estimate the percentage of folks requiring the second seat before a single ticket is sold, and then determine the increased ticket prices per person for that flight.

    As an example, if an airline has 100 seats, and 100 passengers charged $300 each for a flight, that flight generates $30,000 in revenue (obviously this is simplified because all passengers don’t pay the same price for tickets, but run with me here).  Now, if an airline estimates that 10 of those passengers will need two seats, they can only sell 90 tickets on the flight (because 10 of the original seats are now occupied by another person).  In this case, the airline still needs to make $30,000 on the flight, but can only accomodate 90 people.  This drives the ticket price up to $333 per passenger.

    The second scenario can be explored similarly.  Airlines could replace a certain section of aircrafts with larger seats (in the cabin), and charge customers the same amount for these seats.  In this case, it would be more likely that 1.5 seats could be replaced with one seat, so in a scenario with ten such seats, the airline would only have to eliminate five seats.  This would increase the per-ticket passenger rate to $316/seat, assuming passengers were not charged for larger seats.

    In either scenario, the question arises, how do airlines make sure that the right people have access to these seats?  It seems that, again, two options are available.  The first is that passengers are charged varying prices based on their need for an additional seat or larger seat.  I will exclude this from discussion for two reasons:  this discussion assumed that charging for these seats is discriminatory to begin with, and secondly, because willingness to pay an additional fee does not guarantee that one meets the requirement of actually needing the seat(s) from a size perspective.

    The second option is that passengers either apply or are required to apply for this seating the same way physically handicapped folks apply for blue parking tags. (Please do not consider this drawing a parallel between being handicapped and being large.  I appreciate that these are not the same thing.  I am simply comparing the parking to the seats.)  In this manner, all airline passengers would collectively be paying more for airline tickets, and larger passengers would have larger, more comfortable seating that did not infringe on the space (and passenger rights) of those seated around them.

  • Jay Solomon's avatar

    First, Kush, I loved the way you drew out the options we have to avoid being discriminatory through the bulk of this comment. It’s very interesting and provides for great discourse in figuring out what is ultimately the most practical issue here: what do we do instead of what’s being done?

    But before I address that issue, I’ll answer your questions. You asked “1)  Which about the airline policy is discriminatory; that the person is asked to give up their seat on the original flight, or that they are being asked to pay for a second seat going forward?”

    Both are discriminatory. Why should big people get big seats that they don’t pay more for, I hear you asking? For the same reason that handicapped people get closer parking spaces: because they need them (and like you, I’m not saying that these are the same thing - just using other elements of the situations to draw a comparison). You may argue that at the end of the day, most people aren’t paying more so handicapped people can have those parking spots (because as we’ll see there could be an additional associated cost for everyone if fat people fly in larger seats that they don’t bear the brunt of the cost for), to which I would say, as you’ll see below, that unused bigger seats on an airplane would always be enjoyed by other people when fat people don’t need them as an advantage to the slightly higher cost of their tickets - unlike handicapped spots which, as many of us well know, cannot be used ever by anyone but the handicapped (even if the next spot is a mile away).

    I think that the issue you brought up of responsibility is important. We don’t need to say that anyone can control their weight to say that people need to be responsible for their lives at their weights. But just because someone is responsible for his/her life at his/her weight doesn’t mean that when it comes to airline seats, it’s the fat person’s obligation to pay for an extra seat or give up his/her current one.

    Airlines have been consistently shrinking seat size for a few decades in order to fit more seats on their planes. How long can this go on? Based on this being accepted practice and based on the fact that in accepting it and then allowing people who don’t fit to pay for more room or get bumped from flights, we authorize the airlines to continue shrinking seat size in order to optimize their algorithms. Sure, they may do that in order to keep the price of a ticket at $300 (to use the example you provided later in your comment), but at what cost? That sooner or later a whole additional segment of the air-commuting population no longer fits into these newly shrunk seats. Though it sounds absurd, eventually the airline could provide kiddy seats like we see in a kindergarten and ask everyone to buy between 1 and 5 of them, depending on the amount of room taken up.

    “Well, Kate Moss can fit in our seats,” the spokesperson for United Airlines might say. But that doesn’t really help the rest of us.

    Now, I know that I took that argument ad absurdum so allow me to return to whose responsibility I think it becomes to provide adequate room: the airlines’!

    That leads us to your next question - “What would you do in a situation where a passenger took up two seats?” - and your own thoughts and scenario about that question.

    I really like the way you fleshed out the scenario that’s faced by airlines. In fact, people have run these scenarios very thoroughly using comparable airline algorithms - including the airlines themselves - and have seen that ticket price, in order to have additional larger seats in the economy cabin, would require approximately a collective 4% increase in ticket cost, which, if we consider your $300 ticket, would now be a $312 ticket. Now, that’s not a huge difference from the $316 ticket of your second scenario, but I would say that the $333 ticket is unrealistic for the following reasons.

    When was the last time you were on a flight in which 10 people needed a second seat? I can’t remember the last time I was on a flight that had one person fat enough to require a second seat, so I think that 10 is really unrealistic. Now, I know that if we’re talking about creating a situation in which airlines avoid discrimination at all costs (which we seem to be defining as not treating fat people any differently when it comes to seats, cost or flight bumping) then we need to be on the safe side with available seat numbers. Fortunately, I would say that your second scenario, in which 10 seats are removed to make room for 5 seats that are 1.5 times larger would be sufficient. Rarely is a person who truly takes up two full seats able to fly. Yes, it happens, and on the extremely rare occasion that it does, that person can be given two regular seats, but let’s not digress.

    In our scenario with 5 1.5x seats, you have tickets costing $316 and I had them at $312. That feels comparable enough to move forward with our conversation. You then ask an extremely important question: how do we make sure the right people get access to these seats? You eliminated the “charge for them” option because we agree (maybe not actually but for the premises of this argument) that that falls under discrimination. So, here’s what I propose we do.

    Just like you can check the boxes, “I’m flying with a child” or “I need to board early” or “I need assistance boarding” or whatever, you could check, “I require a specialty-sized seat.” Sure, a lot of thin people might be inclined to check that for the extra room, but you could have two deterrents. Either a. rephrase it to be an issue of size (i.e. My size requires that I cannot physically fit into a standard seat) and/or b. state that an FAA fine will be imposed on those who check the box (because they’ve illegally misrepresented themselves?) but who do not have seat-fitting problems when they arrive at the gate. Sure, b could get a little messy and problematic, but at the end of the day, some good brainstorming could resolve this problem.

    I think your application for a ‘permit’ of sorts could be a very good idea. And if people don’t have this permit and are large, they can be asked at the gate if they would like a more adequate seat for their size needs after the flight attendants see them. In this future flying world of ours where all people are treated right, saying that someone is fat and perhaps they require a larger seat is neither mean nor rude: just fact. Just like telling Shaq, I noticed that you’re insanely tall and broad, so would you like one of our specialty sized seats (since for some reason, despite being Shaq, you didn’t buy a first class ticket).

    If those boxes remain unchecked and you end up with, say, realistically, 3-4 of those five seats unoccupied by someone who actually needs them, then the airlines can just give their various rewards level customers the option of sitting in them. Either that or make them randomly distributed at check in or when people get there seats. Over time, everybody will get a taste of the bigger seats once in a while pending they are not occupied by larger people, as I believe they won’t be since people who are simply large won’t get them - just people who truly require them by the current standards that the airlines are using to bump passengers or make them buy second seats.

  • Excellent arguments on both sides! It is a complex issue involving both economics and social issues.
    If you think United airlines is wrong for charging 2 tickets for large passengers go to to a sign petition.
    Lara Frater, the organizer of this petition is seeking 700 signatures, to match the original 700 signatures who complained to United requesting this policy. Personally, I believe that people of all sizes deserve to travel safely and comfortably, and that airlines should be able to manage this. EVERYONE feels cramped and squeezed on an airplane (and lets not even discuss trying to get your carry-on bag into that little overhead box!) A redesign, even if it costs more per trip, may be well worth it for all passengers.

  • Jay Solomon's avatar

    Thanks for providing us with that link, Elizabeth. I’ve just gone to sign the petition, and I hope this conversation encourages others to as well.

  • Rebecca's avatar

    I have to say that I do not see this as discrimination. I take up more than one seat. I am well aware of that. This is a fact of life for me. When I travel with my husband we make the informed choice to always buy the seat in between us. I am well aware that there is an extra incurred cost. I know that in this economy, not a lot of people can afford to do so. But I am know that I am much more comfortable and refreshed when I make my destination when I have room and not worried about encroaching on anyone else’s space.

    Just the same concept as I always have a seatbelt extender that I purchased myself, so that I knew that I would have one in case the airline that I am on does not.

    Just so that you know, just because you purchase a third seat doesn’t always mean that you will get it. When my husband and I flew from Portland Oregon to San Francisco, it was on an already over crowded commuter plane that was 2x2. Did I complain because I felt slighted? I could have, some might have thought that I should have, after all I did pay for the third seat. I didn’t. My husband made the most of it. He just raised the arm rest between us, I slid as far into the curve of the plane as I could and made the most of the short plane ride. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of life.

  • Jay Solomon's avatar

    Hi Rebecca - You’ve got a great attitude about this, and I’m amazed that even when you didn’t get the third seat you paid for, you were able to let it slide off your back. Personally, I’m sure that I would have thrown a fit and probably had a ruptured aneurysm. I imagine it’s a lot healthier and less stressful to just roll with the punches - we could all learn something from your pacific demeanor.

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